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METAMORPHOSES OF A PLATONIC THEME IN JEWISH MYSTICISM
1. KABBALAH AND NEOPLATONISM Both the early Jewish philosophers – Philo of Alexandria and R. Shlomo ibn Gabirol, for example – and the medieval Kabbalists were acquainted with and influenced by Platonic and Neoplatonic sources.1 However, while the medieval philosophers were much more systematic in their borrowing from Neoplatonic sources, especially via their transformations and transmissions from Arabic sources and also but more rarely from Christian sources, the Kabbalists were more sporadic and fragmentary in their appropriation of Neoplatonism. Though the emergence of Kabbalah has often been described by scholars as the synthesis of Neoplatonism and Gnosticism,2 I wonder not only about the role attributed to Gnosticism in the formation of early Kabbalah, but also about the possibly exaggerated role assigned to Neoplatonism. Not that I doubt the impact of Neoplatonism, but I tend to regard the Neoplatonic elements as somewhat less formative for the early Kabbalah than what is accepted by scholars.3 We may, however, assume a gradual accumulation of Neoplatonic
1 G. Scholem, ‘The Traces of ibn Gabirol in Kabbalah’, Me’assef Soferei Eretz Yisrael (TelAviv, 1960), pp. 160–78 (Hebrew); M. Idel, ‘Jewish Kabbalah and Platonism in the Middle Ages and Renaissance’, in Neoplatonism and Jewish Thought, ed. L. E. Goodman (Albany: SUNY Press, 1993), pp. 319–52; M. Idel, ‘The Magical and Neoplatonic Interpretations of Kabbalah in the Renaissance’, Jewish Thought in the Sixteenth Century, ed. B. D. Cooperman (Cambridge, MA, 1983), pp. 186–242. 2 G. Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah (tr. A. Arkush, ed. R. J. Zwi Werblowsky) (JPS and Princeton University Press, 1987), p. 269, 363; G. Scholem, Kabbalah (Jerusalem: Keter Printing House, 1974), p. 45, 98. 3 See, e.g., M. Idel, Absorbing Perfections: Kabbalah and Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), pp. 239–49, where I assume the formative role of much earlier elements found in material related to Judaism; M. Idel, ‘The Image of Man above the Sefirot’, Daat, vol. 4 (1980), pp. 41–55 (Hebrew), esp. pp. 54–5; M. Idel, ‘Kabbalistic Material from the School of R. David ben Yehudah he-Hasid’, Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought, vol. 2 (1983), pp. 170–93 (Hebrew), esp. 173; M. Idel, ‘The Sefirot above the Sefirot’, Tarbiz, vol. 51 (1982), pp. 239–80 (Hebrew); Idel, ‘Jewish Kabbalah and Platonism in the Middle Ages and Renaissance’, pp. 338–44; E. Wolfson, ‘Negative Theology and Positive Assertion in the Early Kabbalah’, Daat, vol. 32–33 (1994), pp. V–XXII. For the existence of a scheme of supernal decades before the period when Scholem claimed that Kabbalah begun see also M. Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives, (New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 1988), pp. 113–18. I hope to return elsewhere to a discussion of an additional example found in late antiquity, where the concept of aperantos is found together with a double scheme of ten divine powers. See, meanwhile, the important discussion of Sh. Pines, Collected Works, vol. V (ed. W. Z. Harvey and M. Idel) (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1997), pp. 153–7 and note 22. On the presence, in a late medieval Jewish source, of a theosophical understanding of the ten sefirot, see
elements in some Kabbalistic circles over time, an accumulation that is dramatically increased during the Renaissance era by a renewed interest in Plato, Plotin and Neoplatonism in general.4 An important moment in this increase of Neoplatonism in Kabbalah may be discerned toward the last decades of the 13th century, in the writings of R. Isaac ben Abraham ibn Latif, R. Moshe de Leon, R. David ben Abraham ha-Lavan, R. Nathan ben Sa’adyah Harar and R. Isaac of Acre. Below, we shall consider a discussion found among the lost writing of the latter author, which reflects a reverberation of a Platonic theme and served as a prooftext, and perhaps more, for the formulations of some 18th -century views in Hasidism.
2. R. ISAAC OF ACRE’S STORY Let me start with some bibliographical details regarding the provenance of the text. At some time in the 1570s, a Safedian Kabbalist, R. Elijah de Vidas composed one of the most influential books of Jewish Kabbalistic ethics: Sefer Reshit Hokhmah. This is a voluminous compendium of Kabbalistic ethics, intended to influence the larger public with a view to their pursuing a life of sanctity according to Kabbalistic values. Its success was immediate and astonishing: The rather voluminous book was printed, abridged, translated, and widely disseminated.5 De Vidas’ discussions draw upon a variety of Kabbalistic and ethical sources available in 16th-century Safed, not all of them extant now. By doing so, he perhaps saved some precious excerpts from loss or oblivion, and mediated between older layers of Kabbalistic writings and the later audiences that read his book. By choosing to introduce them in his book, de Vidas not only saved them from oblivion but also conferred upon them an aura of authority. One of these fascinating pieces is the following story, preserved out of a lost book of the itinerant Kabbalist R. Isaac ben Shmuel of Acre in the late 13th century and early 14th century:
[A] Thus we learn from a story written by R. Isaac of Acre, of blessed memory, who said that one day the princess came out of the bathhouse, and one of the idle people saw her and sighed a deep sigh and said: “Who would give me my wish, that I could do with her as I like!” And the princess answered and said: “That shall come to pass in the graveyard, but not here.” When he heard these words he rejoiced, for he thought that she meant for him to go to the graveyard to wait for
(cont. from previous page) E. Wolfson, ‘The Theosophy of Shabbetai Donnolo, with Special Emphasis on the Doctrine of the Sefirot in Sefer Hakhmoni’, Jewish History, vol. 6 (1992) = The Frank Talmage Memorial, vol. II, pp. 281–316; E. Wolfson, Along the Path (Albany: SUNY Press, 1995), pp. 68–9. 4 See in M. Idel’s studies referred to in notes 1 and 3 above. 5 See M. Pachter, ‘Sefer Reshit Hokhmah of Rabbi Eliahu de Vidas and Its Abbreviations’, Qiriat Sefer, vol. 47 (1972), pp. 686–710 (Hebrew); B. Sack, ‘The Influence of Cordovero on the Seventeenth-Century Jewish Thought’, in Jewish Thought in the Seventeenth Century, ed. I. Twersky and B. Septimus (Cambridge, MA, 1987), pp. 365–79.
will face a problem establishing the time and the locale of the story. vol. And because of his great longing for her. that he composed a book dedicated to this topic. but wished to say that only there great and small. ed. This long itinerary does not help in identifying the area where he heard the story. 1984). he removed his thoughts from everything sensual. But. and always thought of her form. Isaac wandered from the Galilean town of Acre. Isaac of Acre wrote there in his account of the deeds of the ascetics. as Paul Fenton has 6 Sefer Reshit Hokhmah. that he who does not desire a woman is like a donkey. [D] Thus far is the quotation as far as it concerns us. “If she does not come today. and he adhered the thought of his intellect to her. but put them continually on the form of that woman and her beauty. MA. Me’irat `Einayim (ed. Philosophy and Ethical Literature Presented to Isaiah Tishby. later on. he sat there in the graveyard. A. 1986). I. 69 . until his fame spread far about.6 There can be no doubt that R. Indeed. and he became a perfect servant and holy man of God. Dan and J. 1984). 1984). p. his soul was separated from the sensibilia and attached itself only to the intelligibilia until it was separated from all sensibilia. 409. Waldman) (Jerusalem. but not here. so that it is not possible that one of the masses should approach her. 220. wishing to know when and where such a story has been committed first to writing in Hebrew literature. vol. R. or even less than one. And R. Elijah de Vidas’s Reshit Hockhma upon the Writings of R. Isaac of Acre. Isaac of Acre was interested in anecdotes concerning the lives of famous figures in Judaism and that he passionately collected them. as Amos Goldreich has pointed out. In fact. And after a short time he cast off all sensibilia and he desired only the Divine Intellect. and there he slept. there he ate and drank. p. in Studies in Jewish Mysticism. 4 (ed. including that woman herself. for he said to himself. also Northern Africa. so that his prayer was heard and his blessing was beneficial to all passers-by. in Studies in Medieval Jewish History and Literature. Twersky (Cambridge. 1. and because of his separation from the objects of sensation. 426. Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye’. so that all the merchants and horsemen and foot-soldiers who passed by came to him to receive his blessing. Y. p. still dominated by the crusaders.” This he did for many days. Sha`ar ha-’Ahavah. He visited Catalunia and Castile. and perhaps. [B] But she did not mean this. ‘The Concept of Devekut in the Homiletical Ethical Writings in 16th Century Safed’. H. despised and honoured – all are equal.METAMORPHOSES OF A PLATONIC THEME IN JEWISH MYSTICISM her there. ‘Traces of the Influence of R. pp. II. ch. this seems to be one of his characteristics in comparison to other early Kabbalists who were less inclined to deal with hagiography. 7 See R. M. and the exclusive attachment of the thought of his soul to one object and his concentration and his total longing. 569–92 (Hebrew). she will come tomorrow. the point being that from the objects of sensation one may apprehend the worship of God. it seems. And he went on at length concerning the high spiritual level of this ascetic. and that she would come to him and he would do with her as he wished. and it was united with God. all the time. J. M. [C] So that man rose and went to the graveyard and sat there. to Spain. Day and night.7 Someone haunted by historical curiosity. entitled Sefer Divrei ha-Yamim now lost. Hacker (Jerusalem. Pachter. ed. Goldreich) (Jerusalem: Hebrew University. young and old. where he was a student in a yeshivah before the fall of the town in 1291 to the Mameluks. Pachter.
Moreover. It is the possibility of this transformation that is exemplified by the story. is to take possession of the princess’s body. Let me start with the starting point of the protagonist. and I would like to follow the few indications dealing with the different processes involved in this transformation. perhaps also someone who does not work. 3. there is a good reason to assume a Sufi background. Unfortunately. we may describe the idle man as an egoistic person who attempts to exploit the other. blessing and helping others. Abraham Abulafia. from a lost book. which is true of the ideas of several other Kabbalists of his generation. the parable was preserved only in a truncated form. as the remark of de Vidas indicates: “Thus far is the quotation as far as it concerns us and he went on at length. written by an errant Kabbalist. malgré lui. perhaps somewhere on one of the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. It is at this place. I assume that there is a small. It is very difficult to ground his thought. he gradually elevates from the corporeal to the spiritual. but then becomes an altruistic personality. However. but in a rather unusual place: a cemetery. 70 . By thinking repeatedly about the external form of the princess. it seems that the intrinsic complexity of the text on the one hand and its historical importance on the other deserve a sustained interpretative effort.” and our subsequent attempts to ponder on the significance of the parable depend upon what the 16th-century Safedian Kabbalist selected as relevant. that the idle man hopes that his particular desire will be fulfilled. he becomes trapped into a frustrating expectation for a meeting with a princess who never arrives. these are all the reliable data we have. like his older contemporary R. and his life was changed by this short. according to the story. His basic characterisation is his propensity for corporeal things: his sole wish. nourished by an erotic longing. has an unexpected effect: it dramatically affects the spiritual orientation of the idle man. I assume that for a Jewish audience this phrase means someone who does not study Torah. apparently doing nothing. THE SPIRITUAL METAMORPHOSIS OF AN IDLE MAN The main protagonist of R. The idle man becomes.MOSHE IDEL pointed out. In other words. a contemplator of a form he has seen only once. A truncated quote. though significant. He was obsessed by the image of the princess and this obsession is the reason why she becomes the only object of his thoughts: a fixed idea. namely someone who sits at the corner of the street. who becomes an ideal man. a place where possession is meaningless. The princess apparently accepts the direct approach of the idle man and even agrees to meet him. at some time between 1290 and 1320. but nevertheless fateful encounter. By his blind desire. accidental. Isaac’s story is an idle man. The shift from one state to another takes place in the cemetery. where all human desires are terminated. the process of expectation. a fact that may reduce its reliability. interpolation in the text. Nevertheless. He is described as Yoshev Keranot.
through which man becomes “a man of God. and constantly attaches his thought and his soul above. and to which it attached itself.10 In this quote. An examination of the passages relating to hitbodedut from the writings of R. Le Porte della Giustizia. 2001). 222. Sanhedrin. in the name of one of his teachers. the following tradition: From the wise man R. a Cura di Moshe Idel (tr. who had in Sicily a disciple named R. we read of a spiritual ascent. the supernatural qualities of the man of God are mentioned in both passages: according to R. creating worlds because behold “Rabba created a man”8.” while in the parable of the princess the saint is described as “his prayer is heard and his blessing is efficacious.’ that is. when it ascends further and apprehends the Acquired Intellect. Isaac of Acre indicates that its purpose was to remove the thought 8 BT. Nathan he is “a creator of worlds. Let me document the nature and importance of this spiritual shift from other writings of R. since the terminology used in the story reflects R. and if it merited to apprehend to the level of the Active Intellect. Isaac’s characteristic style. 65a. How is this so? If the soul of the practitioner of hitbodedut was able to apprehend and to commune with the Passive Intellect. this approach seems to me valuable. 71 . it becomes the Acquired Intellect. and it is literally called the Divine Intellect. a process of initiation that makes him much more powerful than beforehand.” In both cases hitbodedut and devekut are mentioned. it is called ‘the Passive Intellect. as in the story of the princess. the idle man becomes a shaman. likewise. inadvertently. Isaac. is the trigger of a subsequent vertical shift. To a certain extent.9 Elsewhere I suggested R. Nathan was a student of Abraham Abulafia. Mottolese) (Milano: Adelphi. while in solitude. even in the case of a story that was adopted by R. but if it succeeds in clinging to the Divine Intellect. Goldreich). then happy is its lot. a divine man. p. I heard… that when man leaves the vain things of this world. Nathan. for it has returned to its foundation and its source. he adduces.METAMORPHOSES OF A PLATONIC THEME IN JEWISH MYSTICISM We may describe the two main changes in the status of the idle man as follows: the movement in space from the town to the cemetery. Isaac of Acre.” and the end of the first quotation from Sefer Me’irat ’Einayim deals with prophecy which enables the prediction of the future. 9 R. which leaves the corporeal entities and concentrates upon the supernal spiritual entity. M. Nathan ben Sa’adya Harar. and that man shall be called a ‘man of God. it itself is the Active Intellect. may he live long. Isaac from another source. although in the latter case it is difficult to determine the exact relationship between the two concepts. Also the resort to the words mahashevet and nafsho in similar contexts may point to a shared terminology. namely the horizontal shift. Thus we may assume that. his soul is called by the name of that supernal level which it attained. In his better-known Sefer Me’irat ’Einayim.’ as if it itself were the Passive Intellect. This process includes corporeal isolation and mental concentration. the idle man undergoes. 10 Natan ben Sa`adyah Har`ar. fol. Me’irat `Einayim (ed. Likewise.
Judaeo-Arabic Commentary on the Pirkey Rabbi Eli`ezer with a Hebrew Translation and Supercommentary by Isaac b. From an idle man. he is visited by itinerant figures. however. 13 The numerical equivalent of sheqel like nefesh – soul. but gives them a powerful elevation in order to perceive Divinity. p. not the ultimate attainment of the former idle man. the act of hitbodedut may also serve as a means of drawing the Divine pleroma down into the human soul: When man separates himself from the objects of sensation and concentrates and removes all the powers of his intellective soul from them. 5791). which invites another horizontal move. the recluse becomes the centre of another. Moreover. namely. Nathan. 68b. 14 See Judah ben Nissim ibn Malka. but rather “half to God and half to yourselves.. fol. the protagonist becomes an ideal one. unable to do anything. half for God. B. pp. at least for a period of his career. where devekut to the Divine Intellect is mentioned and we shall have more to say about the terminological details describing this process below. Or.14 11 For R. by moving outside society. 112–19. 41. his thoughts shall draw down the abundance from above and it shall come to reside in his soul. to formulate it differently: the social marginality of the protagonist in the first place – an idle man – invites the liminality of the first horizontal move which becomes the reason for the centrality of the second horizontal move.11 The final goal of this process of ascent is to commune with God Himself.” which is also the secret of the half-shekel. i. and to lift it up to the intelligibles or even to the highest levels of the world of Intellect. The attainment of union with the divine intellect is. “half for you.” is to BT. 72 . And that which is written. Isaac of Acre. 1989). is 430. P. mobile society. omnipotent. that of the others. the idle man becomes the centre of pilgrimage. who reintegrate the recluse into their society by becoming his disciples or people in search of his occult powers. By becoming a devotee to God. How are these new and unexpected powers achieved: in the circle of Kabbalists to which this Kabbalist belonged.” for shekel13 alludes to the soul. “Once in each month” is to hint to the practitioner of hitbodedut that his withdrawal from all objects of sensation must not be absolute. Idel. “the rich man should not add.12 whose esoteric meaning is “half of one’s soul. In other words. Samuel of Acco (ed.MOSHE IDEL process from objects of sensation. ecstatic Kabbalah hitbodedut was conceived to be part of a technique of concentration and indispensable for attaining an experience of attachment of the human soul to God. the liminal persons who may be understood as constituting a communitas. The reference to division of the meditator’s concerns between the sensory and intellective world. as is clear from the parable of the princess.e. nor the poor man subtract. Pesahim. Fenton) (Jerusalem. a thaumaturge cultivated by many for his powers. Isaac of Acre’s resort to this term as pointing to concentration of mind see M. Thus. This is also true in the quotation from R. the horizontal move outside society is followed by a vertical move. from the half-a-shekel”. 12 Exodus 30:15. according to R. Studies in Ecstatic Kabbalah (Albany: SUNY Press.
Shem Tov ben Joseph ibn Falaquera. When this has become certain to me. ‘Shem Tov Ibn Falaquera and the Theology of Aristotle’. Yehudah Albotini’s Sullam ha-`Aliyah (ed. p. as if I am standing in this supreme and divine state. and the availability of the Plotinian passage to Jewish thinkers since the 13th century. 73. Sefer haMa`alot (ed. and I was higher than the entire intellectual world and I was seeing myself as if15 I am standing within the world of the divine intellect I am was as if I was united within it and united with. after transcending the intellectual realm. and even Neoplatonic in its description of the ultimate trans-intellectual attainment. Thus. Venetianer) (Berlin. though Platonic in origin. Y. 16 R. isolation and concentration precede here the ascent on high and the adherence to the highest cause. B. which could have interpreted Plato in a magical – in their own terminology “theurgical” – manner. So. as able to cause the descent of the abundance. Such a combination of spirituality and magic is found also elsewhere in R. the story reported by R. And I have seen the beauty and the splendour and I become amazed and astonished. 1989). Porush) (Jerusalem. including R. See. 22. See P. IV. p. too. 27–39. pp. Likewise Platonic in origin is the implicit distinction that may be extracted from the story between lovers of body and lovers of wisdom. we learn from one of the Hebrew versions of Plotin’s description of the ascent on high as transmitted in the Middle Ages: Aristotle has said: Sometimes I become self-centred and remove my body and I was as if I am a spiritual substance. Isaac’s story.16 As in R. Isaac integrates elements that may start with late Neoplatonism. Daat. 73 . my point is not that of a historical direct influence on R.1. e.METAMORPHOSES OF A PLATONIC THEME IN JEWISH MYSTICISM The implication of this passage is that R. This passage. and may be influenced by Jewish sources. esp. the story implies such a 15 The recommendation to imagine oneself as part of the supernal world recurs in later Hasidism. 31–2. paraphrasing Plotin’s Enneads. unlike some of his followers. pp. E. which adopted Plotinian views. or his source. was quoted by several Jewish authors in the Middle Ages. could understand the ascent of the thought to the source of beauty during the isolation practice.8. Despite the similarity between the two passages. I ascended in my thought from this world to the Divine Cause [ha-’Illah ha-’Elohit] and I was there as if I were situated within it and united in it and united with it. without a body. the perfect and the sublime and I am an active being [or animal]. vol. Plotin. Isaac or on his source. Moshe de Leon.g. Isaac of Acre and is part of a more comprehensive mystico-magical model recurrent in Jewish mysticism. R. L. In fact. such as Jamblicus. and thus open the Platonic discourse to a more magical interpretation. I am concerned here in pointing out the difference between them. in slightly different versions. 29 (1992). Fenton (Yinon).6. second half of 13th century Spain. was concerned with the mystical attainment. [Then] I knew that I am part of the parts of the supernal world.. for example. despising the acquisition of magical power. which incorporated magical effects. It is this coupling of spiritual ascent with magical power that distinguishes the Platonic and some Neoplatonic descriptions of the ascent of mind to God from the Kabbalist ones. 1894). (Hebrew). Isaac. which adds a ‘practical’ sequel to the spiritual attainment.
Isaac opens the possibility of understanding the male aspect of man as pertinent also for his encounter with God. Concentration on an unfulfilled erotic desire causes the soul to leave the world of the senses. it is in his writings that the biblical ‘Ish ha-’Elohim is understood. The preference of an understanding of the mystic as male during the experience is also coherent with the more powerful image that looms from the final stage of the story. to put it in other words: one of the common transformations during the mystical experiences involves the feeling of male mystics that they are. Isaac of Acre writes that: It is not like your thoughts in the objects of sensation. Unlike the views found in Diotima’s speech and in some forms of Kabbalistic descriptions of their relation to God during the mystical experience as females. which are commanded by the ’atarah. and to cling to intelligibles. ‘Plato’s Language of Love and the Female’. the Shekhinah. that is. pp. In passage D quoted about from Reshit Hokhmah in the name of R. however. the physical form of the princess. he followed a theosophical conceptualisation of the nature of the mystical experience. WHO IS THE PRINCESS? The second protagonist of the story. Or. he states that “from the sensual one must understand the nature of divine worship” all this in the context of lust for a woman. R. although it attempts to move beyond it to the lover of God reminiscent of Plato. where the idle man becomes a shaman. the daughter of the king. In fact. Isaac seems to be determined to keep with the original male gender of the mystic also during the mystical experience. HTR. or become for a while.MOSHE IDEL development. The letter ’ayin is the initial of the 17 M. 4. 231–61. as pointing to a human male in relation to a female divine.17 In Kabbalistic literature this is the case of Abraham Abulafia and I am confident that R. R. vol. and afterwards to God Himself. represented by a female entity. Isaac. Finkelberg. Here. also underwent a transformation. envisioned as male. 90:3 (1997). following some earlier Kabbalistic traditions. Isaac was acquainted with Abulafia’s theories and was even influenced by them. One might well ask whether it is possible to identify the exact nature of the princess in this story. the daughter of the king. By resorting to the term ‘Ish in the context of a relation between the male mystic to a female. this may also be the case in the Symposium. She is portrayed there exclusively as an earthly entity. In his Me’irat ’Einayim R. females in relation to the supernal power encountered during the mystical experience. 74 . but it speaks of the intelligibilia. According to a recent interpretation of Plato’s theory of eros. but this level of understanding seems to me insufficient for understanding the story.
they reflect the standard terminology of R. feminine sefirah. Isaac of Acre. etc. therefore. 19 R.” If the nexus between the “daughter of the king” as a symbol for the last sefirah. and the practitioner of concentration who clings to God may stand for the “perfect servant. Furthermore. the intelligibilia with the Shekhinah. Isaac’s observations on R. Prima facie. point to a synthesis between a philosophical approach. Judaeo-Arabic Commentary on the Pirkey Rabbi Eli`ezer with a Hebrew Translation and Supercommentary (ed. as well as the phrase “divine intellect” are additions to the story as learnt from an alien source.18 This Kabbalist identifies. ideal princess – the last. Goldreich). Yehudah ibn Malkah. which corresponds to the sefirah of Malkhut. where the theosophical-theurgical Kabbalah was combined with philosophical terminology on the one side. The occurrence of the philosophical terms. in the context of a Talmudic parable dealing with the unification of the lower sefirah. the ideals of devekut. the Shekhinah. we may assume that way R. This clinging may stand for the “divine worship” in R. in a manner representative of Platonic thought. Isaac in all his extant writings. and the corporeal protagonist of the story under scrutiny here is pertinent to the way we should understand the story of the idle man. Goldreich). Isaac of Acre. as explained in Keter Shem Tov [by R. (ed. 214. See also in R. 75 . Indeed. one can even speak about a sublimation. Isaac would conceptualise these two topics as pointing to an embodiment of the spiritual within the corporeal. immediately following the passage quoted above he adds: “…see the parable of the princess. a distancing from the physical form of the princess.’”19 The princess mentioned here is dealt with in R. which is the Shekhinah. a term betraying the Aristotelian impact. and then to God Himself. Me’irat `Einayim. the issue of hitbodedut as mental concentration. where the ten sefirot are described in a context that assumes their transcendence of the intelligibilia. during which the corporeal desire has been riveted to devotional spirituality and then to God. Isaac’s story. which is in turn identified with the intellect. some details from the other writings of R.METAMORPHOSES OF A PLATONIC THEME IN JEWISH MYSTICISM word ’atarah [crown]. and ecstatic elements on the other side. 214. while attachment to the Intellect is seen as cleaving to the supernal. is to be understood as a devotion to the Shekhinah. and Sufi and ecstatic types of mysticism. P. the sexual desire of the idle man in the opening of the parable underwent a transformation. It seems that by the identification of the crown as the princess. 18 R. as well as the Sufi elements. Isaac allow a more precise reading: the devotion to the intelligibles. p. B. p. one may infer that in the parable of the princess it is plausible to find a withdrawal from the objects of sensation. murgashot and muskalot.. conceived as the last divine manifestation. Shem Tov ibn Gaon’s book. Shem Tov ibn Gaon]: ‘the Torah [spoke here of] the unification of ’atarah. (ed. there can be no doubt that this term. Fenton). However. referring to the sefirah of Malkhut. Me’irat `Einayim. like the contemplation of the beauty as a mystical technique.
as R. it is nevertheless indispensable. neither by the princess nor by the formu- 20 See Idel. which reflect such an encounter. Isaac’s book from which R. what she had in mind was not a delay. generated by a sheer misunderstanding. the divine presence. This ‘social’ reading will transform the sequel into an accidental effect of an incidental meeting. which in my opinion took place in the late 13th century in the Land of Israel. 6. the encounter was purposely postponed in time by a divine providence. which defends the image of the princess against her apparent readiness to engage so easily an erotic offer. as we are going to see in par.20 was influential on the later 16th-century Safedian Kabbalah. Thus. his story is not one of frustration but rather of a substitution of the material beauty for the spiritual. as we shall see below. pp. It is interesting to observe that this encounter. Nathan was influenced by Sufi thought. as the princess is a corporeal lady defending her noble status by ventilating a philosophical reflection on the equalistic nature of the graveyard. a detailed analysis of the peculiar formulations used by this Kabbalist has shown that the princess was no less than the Shekhinah. 79–81. in fact. According to segment B the intention of the Princess was not to educate the idle man by attracting him to a place where he will be transformed by his unfulfilled expectation. or the beauty in her ultimate source. starting with “But” may represent a moralistic insertion. but to instruct him in matters of human hierarchy: the graveyard alone is the place where a man of humble origin becomes equal to a princess. However low as the starting point for such a spiritual journey may be. Segment B. including R. 73–5. the non-encounter with the princess has nevertheless spurred the idle man to search for the source of her beauty. In fact. In fact. However. However. and this had profound implications on the way the much later Hasidic masters understood the story. Before leaving the princess for a while. are lost. Studies in Ecstatic Kabbalah. Isaac’s parable.MOSHE IDEL Though it is possible to determine that this synthesis took place as early as the end of the 13th century. Thus. more ‘sublime’. but was at the same time elevated to another. level. it seems that some of the texts. in the end the stimulus for the religious search. Such a reading will assume that the plain sense of the story is the single important one. which was instrumental in preserving it and transmitting it to the Hasidic masters. let me consider the way she is presented. but a rejection. Elijah de Vidas quoted the above parable. Isaac of Acre is quoted by de Vidas as saying. the erotic advance of the idle man is blamed. this ‘social’ reading of the story as containing the whole meaning seems to be problematic. a point that may strengthen the possibility of a nexus between the last quote and the princess story. pp. a certain immanentistic attitude is perceptible. despite the fact that the idle man never fulfilled his lust. R. the supernal feminine. the lower beauty is. 76 . The whole story becomes a happy end. even less an invitation. let us return to the content of R. As I pointed out there.
let me suggest that someone. The mundane interpretation claims that only in the graveyard are all things equal. he did meet the spiritual counterpart of the princess. R. 52 (1983).9-11)’. 77 . pp. which assumes a certain premeditation conductive to a mystical experience. this answer is not sufficient. However. the theme of the burial is both a symbol and part of a process of spiritual transformation and Dov Sdan and Morton Smith have analysed these themes in detail. respectively. every feminine figure could fulfil the function of becoming an obsessive image of an idle man. instance. all this as an answer for the idle man’s erotic advance that remained corporeally unfulfilled. Rom 6. After all. ‘Hittah she-niqberah’. is not unique but can also be demonstrated in another. Isaac invites the readers of a Kabbalistic book to speculate about a special status of the mundane woman as the representative of a supernal feminine entity. as suggested above. in Christianity and Judaism. On another level. to the husband of the Shekhinah. Isaac adopted from a non-Jewish source. This double reading of a non-biblical story. 15. 1–21 (Hebrew) and ‘Transformation by Burial (I Cor. I (1964). 87–112. the idle man does not die. Therefore. inserted segment B in order to allow a double reading to the story: on the plain level it is a matter of human hierarchy that imposes on the audacious idle man an even more marginal status than before. perhaps even R. Resorting to the appellation Bat Melekh. which R. vol. Isaac himself. Is it possible to relate the cemetery to the spiritual development undergone by the idle man? I would like to suggest the possibility of an affinity between the spiritual renascence of the idle man. the resort to the ideal of devekut assumes a cleaving or adherence. segment D assumes that the lust of a woman is necessary for attaining the perfection of divine worship. similar. According to many religious traditions. and is now visited by the intellect of the ascetic that ascends to her spiritual realm. is a trigger for the mental ascent to God. Let me insist for a moment on the possibility of reading the story as involving a meeting with the spiritual princess at the end. the Shekhinah invited the idle man to the cemetery when embodied in a princess. An immanentistic view of the Shekhinah as embodied within the princess. Moreover. an experience that implies an equation between the two elements that entered this encounter. If we nevertheless stick to a spiritual interpretation. In other words.35-49. Proceedings of the Israeli National Academy for Siences. On the contrary. whose advice is both a rejection and an invitation. Last.21 Indeed. and his being invited to the graveyard. his lust induced him into an adventure that has its own logic. this erotic meeting was nevertheless fulfilled. neither do many 21 See. Eranos Jahrbuch. as it did in other sources. pp. but not least: why meet in a cemetery? The social answer apparently solves the quandary. because it has been premeditated: the princess is no other than the Shekhinah.3-5 and 8. Also the description of the female as a princess seems to be indicative of her special status: in fact.METAMORPHOSES OF A PLATONIC THEME IN JEWISH MYSTICISM lations in the sequel. if the term ‘Ish ‘Elohim is understood as pointing. widespread in late antiquity Hellenistic sources. vol.
his becoming part of the cemetery scene for a long period is quite evident and this fact invites the possibility. Plato was. Unfortunately. R. Polyhymnia is a prostitute of superhuman nature. as I have written in the book Divrei ha-Yamim and in the book Hayyim de-’Orayyta’. Ms. presented in Plato’s Symposium 187d–e as embodying the Eros Pandemos. A person of lower origin who makes erotic advances approaches her and she is. 78 . envisioned the lower. or if he would have cared about it.MOSHE IDEL of the mystics undergoing the symbolic burial in order to be regenerated. the famous Nahmanides. the source of the earthy. these two books of R. though certainly not the certainty. David ha-Kohen. viz. neither to perform miracles nor bless people. which is. does not solve the quandary of what type of figure looms from the attitude she expressed in the first encounter. a Kabbalist and leader of Toledan Jewry in the second half of the 13th century. what seems to me important from our point of view. R. the gist of R. Moscow-Guenzburg 775. Isaac of Acre seem to be lost. The transcendental Urania needs the mundane Polyhymnia in order to be loved by mortals. the corporeal princess is close to the figure of the Muse Polyhymnia. is the behaviour of the Princess. fol. Material love is a manner of inciting the later and more sublime attachment to the spiritual. which is much better than the totally wrong Aristotle: A fallacious proof … as the proof adduced by Plato. which cannot otherwise be attained. The very occurrence of this theme fosters the thesis of an alien source. Isaac of Acre could explain this passage to another Kabbalist. or the Uranian eros. The outcome. Unlike the celestial. in fact. in his turn. 22 Sefer ‘Otzar Hayyim. blessed be his memory. Moses ben Nahman. Isaac claims that he heard the story from the mouth of R. that this nexus and burial and rebirth may be the reason for the selection of the cemetery as the scene for a story emphasising a spiritual renascence. an ambiguous figure. if my assumption that segment B is an interpolation. corporeal love. 5. Isaac. 22a. after his death. Isaac’s story. this was acknowledged by Plato [himself] as he revealed in a dream to his disciple. One last remark on the cemetery: according to Jewish tradition this is not a very salient place for reaching a mystical experience of the divine. SOME POSSIBLE GREEK SOURCES I have addressed the possible manner in which R. heard it from his teacher. in order to demonstrate his opposition to the tradition [Kabbalah] of the prophet Jeremiah. or his source. religious transformations. accepting them. Unlike the Platonic dichotomy between these two diverging forms of love. following nevertheless to a certain extent Plato’s thought. It is doubtful that he was aware of its original Platonic source. which was a complete lie. as the representative of the higher.22 However. who. In my opinion. However. R. according to a passage he quotes as received as a tradition. different indeed.
79 . Couliano. in both their Platonic and Aristotelian versions. The Greek ideals of contemplation. Ovadia et David Maimonide. Is the practice of solitude attributed to Socrates because he was the one to quote Diotima’s comment in Plato’s dialogue? In any event. Yehudah haLevi. one shall arrive at the first form that can be apprehended. Fenton. by means of solitude and mental concentration. 1987). who adduced important parallels between part D of the quote from R. Oxford-Bodleiana 1351. Berlin 216 (Or. a misunderstanding that costs him his life. however. pp. Isaac about the importance of the corporeal love. 1984). Joseph Ben Shem Tov. Ms. a transformation of the story took place either in a Sufi hypothetical version or in R. like Socrates. Averroes’ comment seems to reflect an even earlier tradition depicting Socrates as a recluse. 1991). Isaac’s rendition of a more Platonic version. in making the fool and the wise man equal. 25 R. as in the parable of the princess. 24 See I. according to which: the later ones blamed the pious one Socrates for bringing himself to lack of holiness because the difference between elitist study and the study of the masses was not clear to him.METAMORPHOSES OF A PLATONIC THEME IN JEWISH MYSTICISM There are reasons to believe that this parable reached R. P. Nevertheless in her famous speech Diotima does not mention solitude at all. It is interesting to note that there is a tradition in R.24 Thus. fol. that the parable of the princess and Diotima’s speech in Plato’s Symposium 210–212 are related. some forms of solitude are mentioned by the Muslim philosopher Averroes (1126–1198) in connection with Socrates’ understanding of God: And he who among them belong to the unique individuals. are less concerned with specific techniques. Nevertheless. Deux traites de mystique juive (Lagrasse: Verdier. who chose isolation and separation from other people and retreat into their souls always. Moses Narboni’s Commentary to Sefer Hai Ben Yoqtan. 25–43. until those of great heart believed that through this dedication and forced contemplation of the above-mentioned forms. either in the sense of seclusion from society or in that of mental concentration. to the apprehension of God Himself. Alon’s monograph Socrates in Mediaeval Arabic Literature (Brill. Commentary to Averroes’ Iggeret ha-Devequt (Epistula de Conjunctione). 325.25 Here. Leiden. it seems. Jerusalem. 125ab. 26 Ms. Qu. It seems that this critique 23 See P.23 Originally. Isaac of Acre from a Sufi source. p. And I refer to the practitioner of hitbodedut from the polis.26 Socrates is portrayed here as one who did not understand the difference between the nature of the contemplation of the wise man and that of the masses. Experiences de l’extase (Paris: Payot. already cited by R. it is possible to ascend from the intelligibles. and the wholeness of his nature that he not take to his soul that which God and the prophets did not do. I could not find a parallel to this statement in I. 681). or the forms. 104 note 218. or with shamanic attainments that would complement the contemplative achievements though shamanic elements were known in ancient Greece. and Sufi material. p.
however. an appropriation of a narrative from an alien source. What. Apparently this was not even the intention of R. and the anti-nomian behavior. and this fact indicates. which are even more peculiar if we remember that they are concerned with a fixation of thought on the image of a woman. but I cannot enter here into a discussion of its possible reasons. mental concentration. which can be achieved by resorting to what I shall call anomian techniques. anomian points to indifference to the details of the common ritual practice. had been attributed to Socrates independently of Jewish mystical sources. This shift in the centre of gravitation of Jewish culture in some parts of Eastern Europe is quite a significant one. was not new to the Hasidic masters. a religiously ideal figure. which emphasised the importance of esotericism. on the one hand. Therefore. Since the story had been preserved in a broad ethical treatise we may assume that it had been widely circulated and had therefore influenced Hasidism. as noted above.MOSHE IDEL is made from a Platonic perspective. However. and contemplation. according to the view of two important Kabbalists. gravitating around devotion. the emergence of spiritual ideals that draw attention away from learning. and it is this practice in particular that is incorporated in the idle man’s story. intended to subvert the status of Halakhah. a mystical device that will become part and parcel of ecstatic Kabbalah. Isaac’s story under scrutiny is that it introduced a new ideal. in my opinion. Socrates. This is by no means new in medieval Jewish and non-Jewish literature. we learn about a state of separation from society. Arabic and Christian sources. as already indicated. as the development and the appropriation of this story show. enthusiasm. the alien source of the story. Thus.27 By this term I mean that neither study of the Torah or of the Talmud nor the performance of the commandments are mentioned or even implied in the story itself. Indeed. The above story represents. by resorting to anomian techniques a nonJewish idler may become. like the idle man. with a Jew. It would be disproportionate or perhaps 27 I use the term ‘anomian’ in order to distinguish between the nomian. Thus. or his avatar into a saintly figure. CONTEMPLATING WOMEN IN 18TH-CENTURY POLISH HASIDISM A transformation that is both induced and represented by the idle man story is that of ideals in a late development in Jewish culture: Polish Hasidism of the 18th century. union and communion with God. which is replete with stories taken from Hindu. 6. spiritual separation from sensibilia. Instead. this revivalist movement moved away from the classical ideals of study of the Torah and recommended more emotional forms of worship. namely Halakhic rituals. isolated himself from the city. A perusal of the text of the story does not even allow the possibility of identifying the idle man. Isaac. 80 . becomes clear from R.
234 (Hebrew). p. See there and she 28 M. for each and every one of Israel according to his aspect and desire as it is written in the name of my teacher32 in the pericope Re’eh. 49a. Tzafnat Pa`aneah. Jacob Joseph of Polonoy explicitly mentions his source.28 Mordekhai Pachter29. pp. There is an aspect of blessing and curse not from the side of a revenge because he had rebelled against the king but solely from the aspect of his not being in union with the innerness of the Torah and the commandments but by the intermediary of the adorned woman with the pertinent issues. Ba`al Shem Tov.31 Indeed. pp. R. there can be no doubt as to its influence. The Beginning of Hasidism. Nevertheless. the availability of an appropriate prooftext is very helpful for a master striving to promote new ideals. 1978). “[R. so that he united himself to Him blessed be He. ‘The Traces of the Influence’. 29 Pachter. one could argue that the story is to be understood as a prooftext for Hasidic ideals rather than as a springboard for such ideals. pp. 208–9. Its History and Place in the Life of the Beshtian Hasidism (Jerusalem: Mossad Bialik. 32 Namely R. See Piekarz. Piekarz.METAMORPHOSES OF A PLATONIC THEME IN JEWISH MYSTICISM even ridiculous to attribute the dramatic shift characteristic of Hasidic mysticism and of it as a movement to a single story. Moreover. I assume that this story. Gries. I would be less sceptical about attributing the use of the story to its role as prooftext. somehow prepared the ground and inspired the masters who initiated Hasidism. the founder of 18th-century Hasidism. The masters who initiated the shift toward a more popular ideal. 30 See Z. 399–400. A. They were consumers of ethical literature like de Vidas’ Reshit Hokhmah before they become leaders of a new movement. and other similar to them that cannot be discussed here. did not start in a vacuum. emphasising the importance or at least the possibility of the uninformed attaining a more sublime religious experience. Conduct Literature (Regimen Vitae). Israel ben Eliezer. The Beginning of Hasidism – Ideological Trends in Derush and Musar Literature (Jerusalem: Mossad Bialik. 576–7. Jacob Joseph of Polonoy. Thus. 261. quoted in R. that out of the desire of the lust of women he was separated from the corporeality and turned to unite with the intelligibilia because of that separation. The impact of this parable on R. in a culture like Rabbinic and post-Rabbinic Judaism that is so eager to find prooftexts. Jacob Joseph of Polonoy and other Hasidic masters has been already noted by Mendel Piekarz. Moreover. 31 Me’irat `Einayim (ed. see there. It should be noted that the trace of the above passage is conspicuous also in an additional early Hasidic text. 1989). fol. Ze’ev Gries30 and in Amos Goldreich’s important remark. the religious transformation of the idle man represents a micro-change that was among several factors inspiring and fostering a much greater social religious change. Goldreich). pp. 206–7 (Hebrew). and as such they were among the springboards that later on became prooftexts as well. 81 . and it seems that it concerns another issue as it is written in R[eshit] H[okhmah] the gate of love chapter 4 on the account of DeMin Acco. Isaac is only rarely mentioned in the Hasidic writings that were influenced by this parable. The name of R. Isaac] of Acre” in a context that may be interpreted as if the Besht himself concurs to the view of the ecstatic Kabbalist. Nevertheless.
namely the lust has been taken away from each one according to the aspect of his desiring her. According to a tradition found in a book of a late 18th-century Hasidic author. presumably. a term that is not found in R. Jacob Joseph of Polonoy or of R. Isaac of Acre.33 Because of it. 21ab. See also his Tzafnat Pa`aneah (New York. represents the transformation of the recluse into a paragon of 18th-century Hasidism. the word “etc. fol. Toledot Ya`aqov Yosef (Koretz. ‘Or ha-Ganuz le-Tzaddiqim (Zolkovie. he sees only the divine and the Being. 1780). ‘The Messianic Idea and Messianic Trends in the Growth of Hasidism’. Aharon Kohen of Apta. Tishby.36 In my opinion. because his soul did not yet desire the intelligibilia. as the view of the Great Maggid. which is the adorned woman. Hasidic masters developed the attitude adopted from R. Alexandre Safran. However. Isaac into a directive for their own life. Barukh of Kossov. Aharon Kohen of Apta: The righteous is able to apprehend the incense. 1864). M. 35 Namely the spirituality that sometimes represents a form of divine immanence. 36 R. fol. fols. This explicit awareness of the founders of Hasidism as to the Kabbalistic source of an immanentist view should have been taken into consideration when R. 1976). Isaac’s story as “Hasid ’Olam” a syntagm that may be understood as a Pious of the entire world. from Sufi sources. claims that Hasidism has introduced a farreaching transformation of Kabbalistic concepts. The very resort to the term Hasid. Hallamish (BarIlan University Press. And then the curse is coming. so that he will desire to this so much that he will divest from the corporeality out of his desire for this… and after he had separated from his corporeality out of his desire for this matter…then you should transform and intelligise the intelligibilia and this is the meaning of what is written: “And thou shall return to the Lord thy God” by means of the same desire to which you had been accustomed through the time that you had been removed from God…and you will no more desire anything corporeal. 49a. I. Studies in the Literature of Jewish Thought Presented to Rabbi Dr. the 33 This formula as designating a mystical union is found in Jewish philosophers and ecstatic Kabbalists in the 13th century. Isaac’s story or in its immediate context. 82 . beyond the direct quotations. 83ab and Ben Porat Yosef (Pietrkov. even etc. 1800). 100a. note 122 mentions the theme of tracing the beauty of a beautiful woman to its supernal source in R. 34 R. 1884). it will be understood that the arrival of the blessing and the curse to you namely the blessing being the lust of this world He will give him from the aspect of the above mentioned adorned woman. by means of the lust of this world but you soul will desire Him. ed. who can be conceived as enveloping the divinity. 9b. ‘Spiritual Renaissance and Social Change in the Beginnings of Hasidism’.MOSHE IDEL is she. 45b. Yesod ha-’Emunah (Chernovitz. which is the holiness and the Being. without being aware either of the discussions of R. 35–9 (Hebrew). R. which show how the anomian way of life of the solitary sage brought him to the highest religious attainment. p.34 Especially interesting is the fact that the Besht is reported to have described the protagonist of R. vol. pp.” found in the text stands for the contemplation of a woman. Zion. Likewise. and adduces as her major example the concept of the discovering the divine within this world. the presence and the Ruhaniyut35 which maintain everything. It stems. In every place that he looks. XXXII (1967). Elior. fol. fol. Jacob Joseph of Polonoy. 1990). blessed be He. in `Alei Shefer. 27.
Elsewhere. Isaac of Acre. Aharon Kohen of Apta. is the assumption that the synthesis between the ecstatic Kabbalah and philosophical terminology. again R. Ze’ev Wolf of Zhitomir. 39 R. if someone is adorning himself. daughters of Zion”. Thus. as it is said38: “Go out and see. And this was the intention of Sarah when she embellished herself. namely go out of your corporeality and see the Ruhaniyut of a thing. Idel. consisting of a rather conservative repulsion of feminine beauty. Therefore. represented by the use of the term ‘intelligibles’ was accepted by R. in the same book we learn that: The intention of Sarah in all her adornments and embellishments only for the sake of heaven. 83 . Second. Sefer Maggid Devarav le-Ya`aqov (ed. and he shall think that he sees the beauty and the adornment of the image of the King. activated by an intellectualistic 37 On the embellishments of the woman that is the Torah according to the Besht in the passage from Toledot Ya`aqov Yosef.39 What should concern us in the framework of this discussion is the fact that the moderate immanentist theory of R. the Mystical Cobbler’. as someone who embellishes the image of the King. So also he must think of the case where someone sees a beautiful and adorned person. in comparison to the supernal beauty and splendour. 29–30. ‘Enoch. which is a spark of the Shekhinah and man. fol. And it is incumbent to reflect [lekhavven] that this beauty is annihilated [battel] as a candle at noon. The immanence of the spiritual force in man and in the world is here as obvious as that of other terms like divine presence and hiyyut – namely vitality – in other contexts. Jacob Joseph in his elaboration on R. Namely there is a connection between the supernal vitality. Isaac’s story. the ecstatic descriptions occasionally adopted philosophical terminologies. see also R. where three different attitudes to the beauty of women are described. 38 Song of Songs 3:11. fols. Isaac’s story. Here. 45b. a fact that adds another dimension to the phenomenological affinities between Hasidism and the ecstatic Kabbalah. 11c–12a.METAMORPHOSES OF A PLATONIC THEME IN JEWISH MYSTICISM presence and the spiritual force. and even more important from our vantage-point. which emphasised contemplation of the beauty of the woman as a means of reaching out to the supernal source of beauty. for the source of his view see R. Ze’ev Wolf of Zhitomir.40 Especially interesting in this context is a lengthy passage of R. R. a spark of beauty out of the beauty of the world of Tiferet is dwelling below. since the corporeality of a certain thing is only a sign [Tziyun] and a hint of the supernal Beauty. he does so in order to hint at the adornment of the Shekhinah and his beauty is from the splendour of the Shekhinah. Isaac of Acre was developed in Hasidic discussions. 40 For another instance of reverberation of a legend found in ecstatic Kabbalah. The first revolves around a biographical incident of the Great Maggid. Kabbalah. vol. see M. 1976). fol. ‘Or ha-Ganuz le-Tzaddiqim. Schatz-Uffenheimer) (Jerusalem: Magnes Press. 265–86 (Hebrew). pp. ‘Or ha-Me’ir (New York. which deals with R. one of the followers of the Great Maggid.37 Namely. in addition to their mystical linguistic features. 5 (2000). 1954). Dov Beer of Medzhiretch. [He must think] that this person is in the image of God. in Polish Hasidism. 10b. pp.
Studies in Hasidism in Memory of Mordecai Wilensky. we find an interesting passage. The other one. Idel. corporeal components and an awareness of this ultimate source transforms the attraction to a woman into repulsion. David of Makow. like in Hasidism. Reiner (Jerusalem: The Bialik Institute. but this attitude was attenuated in Hasidism. This type of reaction relates to the earlier part of the Great Maggid’s life when he was a teacher in a village. Ze’ev Wolf’s passage see M. D. p. David of Makow. who discovered God in this world. fol. 42 cf. Ze’ev Wolf of Zhitomir. ‘Or ha-Me’ir.42 Here. and it is characteristic of the more ascetic trends in Kabbalah. Wilensky (Jerusalem: Mossad Bialik. the image of all the images that are reflected in Her. mysticism becomes an ethos. in the context of a broader analysis of R. Etkes. authored by R. It is particularly important to mention that Cordovero’s recommendation is related in that text. In one of the most vicious critiques against Hasidim. in Hasidim and Mitnaggedim. a certain R. called “the most beautiful of all the women. pp. 317–33 (Hebrew). Therefore. I. The third one assumes that the elevation of the beauty to its source causes pleasure to God. 1970). Within Hasidic Circles. Assaf. R. Blessed be His Name. and they had a rather significant impact on Jewish mystics later on. In another famous polemical treatise of the same R. elevates his thought to God. ed. they are accused of looking to women in the market and elevating their thought to God: They walk as idle persons and talk vain talks saying that whoever walks in the market and gazes at women. More on this issue. Isaac’s story are to be found. an important shift in the ideals of Hasidism in comparison to an earlier form of Kabbalah. which is part of a restructuring of Jewish culture in some circles in Eastern Europe. Bartal and E.MOSHE IDEL retracing of the origin of that beauty to the low corporeal elements. 84 . 1999). no literary hints at R. as we shall see below. the immanentist views of the Hasidic masters. Leib Melammed. David of Makow. vol. but an ethos nevertheless. a view that traces the source of beauty to the Shekhinah. II. attributed to a Hasidic figure.” Beauty is to be elevated to its source and a beautiful woman reflects the splendour of the divine presence here below. Let me address now the macro-change that affected the behaviour of some Hasidim. should not surprise someone acquainted with the thought of this Safedian Kabbalist and that of his students. Moreover. and thus he worships God. is more in vein with the view of R. I. Isaac of Acre and de Vidas. M. The younger Maggid retraces the source of female beauty to the aggregation of the coarse. however. an approach that can be understood as theurgy. ed. ‘Feminine Beauty – A Chapter in the History of Jewish Mysticism’. 41 See R. 235. to the notion of devekut. 16cd. the Lurianic one. should be mentioned. one concerned with eros. Luria and his followers were ascetically oriented.41 It is important to recall that the assumption that it is possible to find spiritual elements within the material realm was conceived as a technique in Cordovero.
is the assumption. pp. vol. 425. pp. a fortiori. move away from the original message of R. 126. 65–76. that the beauty of a woman may become the trigger for ascending to the divine realm. Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought. vol. Eros and the Jews (Basic Books. 115. which I suggest is derived from R. Wilensky. in fact. By doing so he may. Circle in the Square. so as he will desire it as the desire of his beloved. R. according to de Vidas. closer to the gist of the Platonic source. and will not resort to ascetic practices and fasts. 1999). 41–2 (Hebrew).44 De Vidas recommends. Moses. ‘The Concept of the Torah in Heikhalot Literature and its Metamorphoses’. see also D. 85 . the Safedian Kabbalist wrote: From this story we should learn that whoever will desire the Torah so much that he will think. Studies in the Use of Gender in Kabbalistic Symbolism (Albany: SUNY Press. But I did not heed her words and I only contemplated her flesh and her great beauty until a great holiness came upon me and told me to desist. 256. indeed. Isaac’s story. an ascetic. Gate of Love. Idel. And she asked me to “be with her. 145–6. R. B. pp.METAMORPHOSES OF A PLATONIC THEME IN JEWISH MYSTICISM However. he will attain a wondrous degree in his soul. The Besht addressed the idle man story as part of 43 See Shever Poshe`yim. For eros and Torah in general see S. I (1981). ch. p. Isaac’s story but is. but nevertheless not to have actually an intercourse with her. the way in which de Vidas understood the story should be taken into consideration in this context. 312. p. therefore. Eros et la loi. E.” and this is sufficient for someone who understands. However. which renders the ascetic path superfluous. which scholars consider to be either a text forged by an opponent to Hasidism or possibly one written by a Frankist: Once I was alone with a woman and she was lying on a made bed. Moreover. Wolfson. Biale. 1995). 253. as Diotima classifies the love of knowledge and learning as higher than that of a beautiful body. After quoting R. but rather to contemplate her and look at her intensely and he will pass the test and rise to a great rank.43 In a manner reminiscent of the early 13th-century Hasidei Ashkenaz. because the union depends only on the desire of the Torah and its love. Therefore. II. 44 Reshit Hokhmah. p. very serious doubts has been cast on the authenticity of this passage. 1992). 338. Isaac’s story could only reinforce a propensity for asceticism: the idle man becomes. nevertheless. 276–7. it is proper for a man when he sees a woman to have great desire for her. and he adduced the story only in order to illustrate the possibility of an absolute dedication. in Hasidim and Mitnaggedim. naked without a shirt. and this transformation was crucial for his religious attainment. day and night. what is new in the late Hasidism. For the feminine symbolism of the Torah in Jewish mysticism see M. the intense love as described in the story should be directed to God himself. Holdrege. 302. see also p. which should. 1–29. be directed to God. only about her and not about any of the things of this world. Lectures Bibliques (Paris: Editions du Seuil. the classical Jewish value of a love of the Torah. Prima facie. 426. Isaac’s story. Veda and Torah (Albany: SUNY Press. there is the possibility of withstanding the erotic ordeal and of transforming it into a religious attainment. 1996). However. ed. pp. 3.
the Hasidic masters inherited a very ancient theory. However. which exploited an a fortiori argument in order to reinforce one of the standard mystical paths in Jewish mysticism. 1990).MOSHE IDEL a more traditional spiritual development. 97–9. Platonic Piety. In any case. and we may assume that he knew also the non-ascetic aspect mentioned above. Isaac of Acre might have adduced it when he met them somewhere in the Galilee. the terminology of Greek mysteries. p. de Vidas’ marginalisation of asceticism in the above passage may be conceived as a plausible and significant source for. the awareness of the metamorphosis of an originally Platonic type of eros in Hasidism may account for the somewhat less particularistic attitude implicit in the Kabbalistic and Hasidic discussions: it is not only the beauty of a Jewish woman that may serve as the starting point of the ascending process of contemplation. 86 . especially the Eleusian ones. I assume that this is a modest contribution from Greek philosophy. Morgan. In other words. an anomian story was preserved in Safed and adapted in Poland only because it was embedded within a nomian context. If the above analysis is correct the last significant transformation of Platonism in Europe is. the Besht addressed the story as it has been embedded in its context in de Vidas’ book. Philosophy & Ritual in Fourth-Century Athens (New Haven. this trajectory is representative of the way many topics in Hasidism should be understood in general. travelled a long horizontal way: it was apparently adopted by Muslim Sufis. Indeed. as having garments that fit each and every one of Israel. By doing so. or at least antecedent of. perhaps. from whom R. shaped by the mystery terminology. Finkelberg. which was still inspiring the 18th-century Hasidic masters. pp. who become in such a way attracted to the higher mystical attainment of union with God. Diotima’s speech about a vertical contemplative ascent. In fact. as noted by several scholars. a more universalistic approach.45 Then. but women in general. London: Yale University Press. The above analysis has added just one more small footnote to his observation. He took it from Asia to Western Europe. not represented by the Cambridge Platonists in the mid-17th century but by the 18th-century humble Hasidim who were searching for beautiful women in Polish markets in order to elevate their thoughts to God. 241. 45 See M. However. and according to some of the discussions. ‘Plato’s Language’. the marginalisation of ascetic Lurianic practices in Hasidism. the study of the Torah. perhaps gentile women. when he described the woman mentioned in the story as the Torah in this word. As good Platonists they loved the image of the idea within the women they contemplated. and it constitutes but a small observation enforcing Alfred Whitehead’s remark that Western philosophy is a footnote to Plato. but his book made its way back to the Middle East and this story was preserved in Safed and from there it reached Eastern Europe. The Platonic discussion on the nature of love adapted. we shall also pay attention to the Hasidic propensity to panentheism as an additional factor urging the discovery of a divine presence in so many and diverse places.
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